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From the issue dated Sept. 8, 2000

The Latest War on 'Binge Drinking' Is Against the Term Itself


A coalition of 21 higher-education associations is calling on college administrators, government officials, and researchers to stop using the term "binge drinking" in defining student alcohol use. The group's statement is the latest salvo in a simmering disagreement among policymakers over whether too-liberal definitions of problem drinking may actually promote alcohol consumption by causing students to think binge drinking is the norm.

In its statement this week, the Inter-Association Task Force on Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Issues said that use of the phrase binge drinking should be reserved, as it historically has been, to refer to a "prolonged (usually two days or more) period of intoxication."

"Students themselves are getting tired of being portrayed negatively as a whole for the behavior of a few," said Drew Hunter, secretary of the panel and executive director of the BACCHUS and GAMMA Peer Education Network. "What we are asking for is to define the picture accurately."

Primarily responsible for the flawed definition of binge drinking, in the group's view, is the College Alcohol Study sponsored by Harvard University's School of Public Health. Its latest survey of student alcohol use, which was published in March, found that 44 percent of students binge, by its definition: five or more drinks in one sitting for a man, and four for a woman.

This morning, researchers at Harvard released a follow-up report showing that students believe that 35 percent of their peers binge drink, and that the students surveyed tend to define a binge as six drinks for a man and five for a woman. Those findings are in line with the researchers' earlier finding, the report's authors said.

But another national e-mail survey of students that was released this week takes issue with the Harvard findings. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the survey, which was sponsored by the Association of College Unions International, an association of student-activities officials, and conducted by the Washington polling company of Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates, defined binge drinking as having eight or more drinks, and excessive drinking as having six or more.

When given the chance, many respondents specifically criticized Harvard's definition of binge drinking -- five for men and four for women -- as too low. "If that is binge drinking, then 95 percent of my campus binge drinks every week!" wrote a male junior at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Henry Wechsler, who directs the alcohol study at Harvard, took issue with the argument that by setting the bar low, its study may promote binge drinking by leading students to think it is the norm.

He noted that the proportion of students in who describe themselves as binge drinkers has remained steady throughout the 1990's, at about two in five, suggesting that definitions haven't had an effect on behavior.

But that's not to say drinking on college campuses isn't still a problem -- a much more significant problem than the debate over academic language.

"It's important that we work together to solve these problems," Mr. Hunter said. "There's no need for a feeling of competition or challenge."

Mr. Wechsler agreed. "If they can get rid of it," he said of problem drinking, "let them call it whatever they want."

Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education